Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Searching for Bobby Orr

I recently finished "Searching for Bobby Orr" by Stephen Brunt. This is a book that leaves many varied impressions and is difficult to pin down. The title suggests the story of a search for Orr by the author, but instead it more reflects the author's frustration in writing a biography without access to either Bobby or anyone close to him. In the end his search for Bobby led to interviews, articles, game tapes, and a few people who either knew him long ago or were never on the inside.

In the final analysis this book is a sort of mirrored reflection of Bobby himself. There are moments of beautiful prose when Brunt waxes poetic about Orr on the ice. "... every rush is an improvisation, a jazz solo, a flight of the imagination." But there are also dull chapters about Bobby's years growing up, falling somewhere between a lifeless listing of people and events and a compelling story. The book, like Bobby, is at times mysterious and aloof. There are hints of a dark side to Bobby, but he never comes right out and says it. In the end I was left with many questions unanswered. When I put the book down after finishing it, I was struck by how oddly thought provoking it was for a biography. Brunt lays some pieces of the puzzle that is Bobby's life on the table and it is left up to the reader to make some sense of them. I may have to read the book again to put it all in perspective.

In many ways this book is about the changing times: the expansion of the NHL in the US and the rebirth of the players association, and the establishment of Canada's national identity with Hockey on the international stage -- with the story of Bobby and Alan Eagleson weaved throughout. For Bruins fans there are several chapters about the Big Bad Bruins and how Bobby was the nucleus about which the great Bruins teams of the early 70's was built.

I got the sense that most of the material in the book was gleamed from books and articles, or by watching tapes of Orr playing. I also had the sense that the author was so familiar with other books and articles that had been written about Orr, about the times, about the Bruins, and about the Eagle, that at times he seemed to leave out too much of the back story--as if we too must have already read these other works and they weren't worth repeating. Yet Brunt goes into detail about the Bruins teams and Stanley Cups as if the reader may not be familiar with who Bobby Orr is. In the end I wanted more--much more. Particularly about Bobby's relationship with Eagleson and Orr's life after Hockey. But there was precious little of either. Orr's life after Hockey is left for a few short paragraphs in the epilogue. Despite the warmed-over recollections of great moments on the ice, there is an odd darkness, a sorrow throughout this book, as if the author has come to see Bobby as a tragic figure.

The book builds to a final chapter, titled "Betrayal." Brunt's take on Orr going to Chicago may be of particular interest to Bruins fans. We were once told that Bobby left because Jacobs was too cheap. But Brunt begins by outlining the canonical story we've all heard since: the Bruins in fact offered Bobby 18% of the team and a fat contract to stay, but Eagleson never told him of it. Instead he told Bobby that the Bruins wanted to put him out to pasture because of his bad knee and steered him toward accepting a contract in Chicago where he was wanted and appreciated. But in his understated style Brunt suggests that this story is not true either. Instead, he suggests that the Bruins originally offered a part of the team but that the league would not allow it, so it came off the table. He also points out that this offer was widely reported in the papers and was no secret. After Bobby failed a key physical exam, the Bruins were faced with the prospect of a very expensive long term contract for a player who might not ever play again. So they backed off guaranteeing his salary. We are led to conclude that the Eagle may in fact have done Bobby a huge favor by getting him a lucrative long-term contract, basically after his playing days were over. Yet this money-driven decision came at a huge emotional cost.

But Betrayal goes on. Again, with little editorializing we are given some facts and more or less left to come to our own conclusions. Much of the chapter is about Bobby taking part in the Canada Cup, something that was orchestrated by Eagleson. It is Orr's chance to finally play for his country and his last hurrah. But his knee barely lasts the tournament. The chapter ends with this quote: "That's why I like him so much," Eagleson said, "He gave his career for his country." We are left wondering just who betrayed whom? Did the Eagle betray Bobby or was it the other way around? Perhaps the answer is the one the book presents: Orr and Eagleson betrayed each other after they no longer needed one another. But there is another betrayal only hinted at: Bobby's betrayal of his teammates, Boston, and the Bruins fans. It's the sports business and nobody really blames Bobby for going to Chicago, except, perhaps for one person: Bobby himself. Perhaps this is the true betrayal--a festering, personal betrayal that ultimately led to very hard feelings. But I am only guessing. In the epilogue the book concludes that this search for the real Bobby may never truly end.

"Searching for Bobby Orr" is for the most part an interesting read for those interested in Bobby's story. But it suffers from changes in tone as if it were written by three different people. And although the book doesn't expound conclusions by the author about some of the controversies surrounding Bobby, he leads the reader to some interesting conclusions of their own. But in the end, I am left wary of those conclusions because it is abundantly clear just how much has been left unsaid, particularly by Bobby himself.


jimbuff said...

Stephen Brunt is sports columnist here in Canada. He writes on all sports and is a very good journalist.
He is very knowledgable on many subjects and sports. That said I am surprised that he wrote a book on such a specific subject - I never heard of this book but I will be getting it and reading it soon.

I am a big Orr fan and I have a lot of respect for Brunt so it is a must read for me.

Thanks for the heads up and I will let you know what I think of it.

Anonymous said...

Great commentary, I had never heard of the book- even being born and bread as a hockey player here in Boston and annointed a Bobby Orr fan just after baptism- until receiving today as a Christmas gift. In the couple of chapters I have read, I get the impression that Brunt wants to provide a contrarian Orr image without the benefit of cutting facts, however wants to preserve his sainted status- I guess he is a fan like the rest of us. Looking forward to the read and I am interested in Bobby's reaction and thoughts (if any) on the book. Happy Holidays